NOTES
(1) There is a teeny tiny reference to elements of an Angel episode called Happy Anniversary—no prior knowledge necessary. No infringement intended etc.
(2) Thanks to YellowDart and NikeJ for the hard work as beta! XX

As always, sincere thanks for reading and replying!

mlhkvh5 – I've been told that I have a visual style and I'm so pleased that that seems to be the case for you. More on the rescue attempt in the update below, I hope you like it. Yay! Careful and needy are perfect descriptors of A/P's attitudes to one another, lol. As ever, thank you for the lovely review! X

lifeonrewind - Hey, Sammy. Hopefully this chapter will answer some of your questions about Sidious. X

Chapter Nine

Anakin stepped out of the cell first. The corridor was filling fast with other escapees. "Head for the turbolift," he told Padmé and Freyrr. "Don't stop, no matter what. It's our only way out of here."

Getting to the turbolift didn't take long. The problem turned out to be the pushing, shoving queue of desperate people ahead of them. More were coming up from all sides.

"Unless you plan on doing a repeat performance on levitation, I think we've hit a dead end" said Padmé, grimly. "I don't suppose you have a plan B?"

"I'm working on it."

The turbolift was in the centre of four semicircular blocks with more radiating out from them in ever increasing circles. Humans, near-humans, insectoids and other sentients that had been imprisoned in those blocks were now all converging at the same spot. The jostling and pushing was harsh, squashing them together. Padmé was sandwiched between Anakin and Freyrr, and the tremendous pressure from behind him made it a struggle to keep from hurting her. The turbolift could only take between ten and twelve normal-sized people at any one time. Starting to feel desperate, Anakin did the math. Three hundred people meant roughly twenty-five trips to get everyone out. There were at least half that many people spread out ahead of them. Some of the species were particularly tall, making it impossible to see what was going on at the front.

For one brief, dark moment, Anakin wished he could simply clear a route and get those who were most important to him out to safety. Not so long ago, he wouldn't have hesitated, cutting down anyone who got in his way—no matter that they were defenceless and their eyes were wheeling with terror. Those clouded by the dark side didn't have a conscience, or show mercy. Bitterly ashamed, he reached out with the Force, searching for a way out for all of them. What he saw were flashing visions of the battle taking place at the turbolift doors as panic turned to viciousness. The Force itself was fairly churning with that panic, and the fighting meant that no-one was getting away.

Their exit was effectively blocked.

Making a decision, he said to Freyrr, "Take Padmé and muscle your way to the front." He knew he didn't have to tell the Wookiee to take care of Padmé. "Someone needs to organise who gets on the elevator before they start killing each other—and we run out of time."

Freyrr gave an approving growl. Padmé grabbed his arm just as he went to turn away and begin pushing his way to the back. She had to shout to be heard over the rising noise of grunts, yells, curses and terrified calls. "What are you going to do?"

He leaned down close to her ear so she could hear him. "We dealt with the droids in the control room, but we know there are more down here. I'd lay bets that this place is about to turn into a shooting gallery. Think about it, it's perfect for an ambush with all of us caught in a crossfire. I have to stop that from happening."

A dull alarm started to sound over their heads. They both knew it meant that the game was definitely up. He watched her battle anxiety, and something else, before Padmé nodded and released his arm. "Take care of yourself. We'll wait for you."

Knowing what might happen if she waited around too long had him rejecting that idea. "No. I don't want you to wait. It's too risky. Just get out as fast as you can. I'll catch up."

He saw the refusal form in her eyes. Resolutely, she shook her head. "We're not leaving without you. It's useless to argue."

With that, they were gone, giving him no further chance to argue anyway. Freyrr led the way, roaring at anyone foolish enough to try and block the Wookiee's path. Her sheer size and strength got them slowly through the press of bodies. Anakin's progress to the back was made easier by the fact that he was heading in the opposite direction to everyone else. Those he passed he tried to calm down, but some were beyond words. He broke free of the last stragglers just in time to hear the familiar sound of heavy mechanical feet marching in tune to the whine of servos. Worried about an even deeper panic causing a dangerous crush, Anakin broke into a run. His lightsaber was already in his hand and ignited when the first three super battle droids marched stiffly around the nearest corner, heading straight for the escapees.

Painted a dull black, with bulky armour and their processing units buried deep in their torso for protection, the 'supers' could intimidate most people merely by their presence. Worry, the same as guilt, clouded Anakin's senses. Dumping every distracting emotion, Anakin centred himself in the Force, effortlessly calling on it to guide his hands. The droids let loose with twin laser cannons the moment the escaping prisoners were in sight. Deflecting back their initial volley, he didn't slow down until he was upon them. Three unnaturally quick slashes sliced effortlessly through armour usually strong enough to withstand blaster bolts. The droids didn't even have a chance to evade. Their top-heavy torsos toppled, sparking, to the floor before being followed by the legs.

It wasn't over. More came.

Humming efficiently in his hands, Anakin's lightsaber was more often than not a blue blur of deadly plasma. Refusing to be drawn into giving chase, and being drawn away, Anakin let them come to him. A part of him was stunned at how calm he felt. There was no pulsing rage to tempt him into tapping into it, only determination. Despite the danger, everything felt so incredibly right: the lightsaber in his hand, the currents of the Living Force coursing through and around him, the cause he was fighting for, the people he was protecting. It was a reminder that he hadn't always been a Sith; he'd been a Jedi first. His heartbeat was steady, his breathing not at all laboured. It was as if he'd found his place and taken root in it.

It helped that this battle was nothing like the frantic, bloody malevolence that characterised a Narzgh raid.

Soon the corridors were littered with droid carcasses. The layout of the prison meant that he had to patrol four corridors. Luckily, stealth wasn't in the supers' programming. At one point, he had to literally burn his way through a block of cells to get to his quarry. More than once, blaster fire from behind took out a droid before he could get to it—Padmé: the sheer accuracy of the shots identified her as the marksman. Still, Anakin was kept busy. It wasn't long before the acrid stench of melted metal and scorched circuits was burning the back of his throat. All around, cannon fire had gouged out craters in the walls and floor, mostly from being deflected by Anakin. Smoke lay thick in the air, adding to the gloom and stinging the eyes.

It wasn't just super battle droids. There were dozens of the torture droids as well. Modified for crowd control, they hovered overhead, shooting bolts of electricity at the escapees. The victims ended up writhing in agony on the floor. Using a diving roll, Anakin narrowly avoided the splinters of arcing energy. Deflecting the cannon bolt loosed at him by an approaching super, he felt grim satisfaction when the hovering round, black ball took the hit instead, crashing into a second and taking it down too. Still on his knees, Anakin used a diagonal slash to slice through the battle droid. At the same moment, another appeared around the corner. He had to use Force-absorb as it fired at him, seeming to catch the deadly red bolts in his palm. Converting the raw energy of the bolts, Anakin lashed out with a Force-push strong enough to cause the second droid to be lifted off its feet. Mechanical legs kicking, it collided with reinforcements coming up from the furthest intersection.

How many of them were there? He knew they had to be running out of time. Reinforcements had to be on the way.

From behind, Padmé called his name, urgency in her voice. A glance back showed the last elevator load was standing ready with room enough for him. About time! Not all of the escapees had managed to take cover from those droids that had slipped past Anakin and Padmé. The dead lay sprawled where they'd fallen. Slack, empty faces leapt out at him as he raced over them. Aching for the ones who'd died, he left the lightsaber activated until the last second. Putting on a burst of speed, he sprinted for the turbolift, spinning to deflect laser fire even at the last moment. Padmé, covering his retreat with her blaster as well, timed it so the doors slid shut just as he cleared them. With a shudder, the elevator rose, gathering momentum quickly.

Anakin's gaze found Padmé's and held it. Combat-heightened, his senses were already attuned to her life-force, reassuring him that she was unhurt. He asked anyway, "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. I think we've managed to get most of the people out. There were a few times when I honestly didn't think we would." There was that something indefinable in her eyes again; it passed between them, tingling. Anakin's heart began to thud, slow and heavy.

The moment was broken when the elevator came to a sudden stop and the lights went out. A female Qiraash at the rear of the elevator car screamed.

ooo

"I've locked down the turbolift. No more can escape, Captain." From his station, Corporal Pon looked over at his superior.

Pacing around the control room, Captain Kathka was sweating. He'd come on duty to find every cell door had been released and, of the twenty super battle droids assigned to guard duty, all but five were showing as offline. How could that be? He also had no idea where the shift team was that he'd been supposed to relieve. "Didn't you see how many were streaking away from here, you fool? Gods know how many we've lost!" His voice was hoarse. Illogically, he despised the unruffled composure he saw in the black, lightly slanted eyes of his subordinate. "Heads will roll for this fiasco," he warned, harshly.

Eloas Kathka knew the price of failure to perform a duty. His last master had been ruthlessly efficient at demonstrating such an inconvenient fact. Kathka's lesson had been deadly. The memory of a towering figure in black with a terrifyingly blank mask—one, moreover, that somehow managed to radiate cold fury—flashed into his mind, turning his bowels to water. Premier Lyonides was nothing compared to the dark lord he'd last served, but the idea of confessing this night's fiasco was far from pleasant. All of a sudden, he was deeply regretting his transfer from the city security detachment. At the time, he'd been so proud to have the Premier demonstrate such confidence in his abilities, and yet now that pride was ashes in his mouth.

Fool. And now you'll die again for your arrogance. You couldn't just keep a cushy job, could you? No, you have to give in to ambition and seek more. Too busy showing off your new uniform to that whore, Elynya, to think about consequences. Fool. Fool. Fool.

"I have eleven life signs showing up inside the elevator," advised Pon, crisply. "Shall I send it back down for the remaining battle droids to deal with, sir?"

"No," replied Kathka, halting his pacing, thinking furiously. "We daren't risk the last of the droids. The Premier will be furious as it is."

Gods! So much for those walking tin cans being invincible.

"What about the gas, sir?" asked Pon.

Kathka blinked. "The gas?" It clicked then. Every chamber in the detention level, including corridors and elevator, were fitted with vents that would spew out poison gas at the flick of a switch. He smiled, relieved. "Of course, the gas."

Neither Pon, nor Kathka noticed an astromech droid slide surreptitiously out of the power-down slot normally assigned to the newer, super battle droids.

ooo

Awareness of a danger so strong it was almost a physical manifestation, swept over Anakin. It had nothing to do with the lack of light. The warning was much more immediate than that. But, what could get at them inside an unmoving elevator? For once, he tried to think like Vader. The ceiling? He looked up, wondering if something was about to land on top of the car and cut its way inside—but that didn't feel right. Reaching out with the Force, he sensed the energy contracting, closing in. He almost felt choked with it, as if he was struggling for air.

Air?

Ogmar's voice echoed in his head. "She's scheduled for termination by poison gas in less than one standard hour."

Gas? Why engage an enemy when an easier, more efficient method was available?

Thanks to excellent night vision, he could see fairly well. His gaze flew to a vent on the lower right wall. Hunkering down he checked it out. The mesh was too tight for him to find the grip necessary to wrench it out with his fingers. He used a Force-pull.

"What are you doing?" asked Padmé by his ear.

"I'll let you know when I figure it out myself."

Reaching in and upwards with his left arm jammed almost to the shoulder, Anakin felt the normal flow of air over his fingers. He also found another inlet pipe. There seemed to be no flow of air from it, and yet, almost as soon as his fingers touched it, he felt it vibrate slightly. "Everyone suck in a deep breath and hold it," he demanded loudly, hoping he was wrong.

He wasn't. Gas slid between his fingers. Straining even higher, Anakin grasped the pipe and brought his will down on it, crushing the metal to form a make-shift stopper. Even as he did it, he knew it was unlikely that such a seal was good enough. Worried that he'd only slowed the gas, but not stopped it, Anakin pulled his arm out and stood up. "Stand back and make room. Breathe only if you must."

Igniting his lightsaber, Anakin began cutting into the ceiling of the elevator car. When he was four-fifths finished, he leapt up and knocked the section he'd cut away aside. Grasping the still heated edge, he pulled himself up enough that his head popped outside. Recklessly, he took a deep lungful of air from the elevator shaft. As he'd hoped, it was clean. He let himself drop again, landing nimbly back on his feet inside the elevator. He found just shy of a dozen sets of wide-eyes all looking at him for an answer and reassurance.

Anakin opened his mouth, but couldn't find the words. What did they expect him to say—everything's going to be fine? Frustration surged. He'd done what he could, but unless he could get the elevator moving again, that outcome was unlikely.

Unless … "We could try climbing out?"

Just then, the elevator car gave a jerk, the lights flickered and it started to shoot upwards again.

ooo

"What's going on?" Kathka's eyes boggled at what his screen was showing. "I thought you said you'd locked the elevator down?"

"I did, sir." Pon was pushing buttons, checking and double checking his previous system commands. It didn't take him long to realise that nothing he did was having an effect. "I've been locked out of the system, sir."

Kathka was finding out he was similarly blocked. His fingers prodded agitatedly at the keys. "How is this possible?"

"Backup is still fifteen minutes away, sir."

"I know."

"The elevator will be here any moment, sir."

"I know! For Chaos' sake just shut up!" Kathka snatched up his blaster and positioned himself in front of the elevator doors.

Corporal Pon, still composed, mirrored him. Out of the corner of his eye, the corporal finally spotted the astromech droid with its interface arm firmly jacked into a main dataport. "Sir, that droid—it shouldn't be here. It has to be the reason we can't access the system."

Kathka looked away at the crucial moment. He was just about to turn and take aim at the droid when the elevator doors slid apart—and his blaster went flying out of his hand, along with Pon's, and into the hands of the man at the front of the elevator.

Frozen and disarmed, Kathka's face drained of colour. The only being he'd ever seen perform such a trick was his old master, Lord Vader. For some reason his brain insisted on superimposing that Dark Lord's terrible visage over the smooth face now staring at him. All the strength dissolved in his legs, making it impossible to move. It took him a moment to shake his wits into order. "I know you. You're Anakin Skywalker. What …I don't understand?"

ooo

Petris Lyonides had never bowed to, or kneeled before, anyone.

Approaching the black-robed and hooded figure reposing on an almost throne-like chair, he felt a quiver in his knees. He blamed it on the depressing oppression of the underground chamber. That and the stench of dead, decaying flesh lying fetid on the air. Suppressing the urge to cover his nose with the sleeve of his tunic, Lyonides settled for inclining his head. "Lord Sidious, you requested a meeting."

"I did," the other rasped. "I want an update on our… manoeuvrings."

That it was a demand rankled. That he did not have the courage to refuse rankled even more. "The curfew is in place. The necessary laws have been put into place following the attacks I engineered. There have been uprisings, but nothing that couldn't be stamped out. Roth is still fully under my control, as I told you it would be."

"Good. Good," crooned Sidious. "I didn't doubt you for a moment, my friend. After all, you have experience and drive, as you've demonstrated in the past." He leaned forward, little more than a darker, shrouded silhouette. "Now, tell me about Amidala and Skywalker."

Lyonides stiffened, this time at the mention of those names. "Both assassination attempts on Amidala failed just as you predicted. During the second, it became necessary to remove the Wookiee that she was using as a bodyguard. I had intended to dispose of that creature after the event."

"A necessary precaution, I'm sure," conceded Sidious. There was a dead pause. "Yet, you said 'intended'. Do I take it that your little detour has gone awry?"

Sweat broke out on Lyonides' forehead. Much as a rodent might sense the insidious drift of poison, he sensed displeasure. Heart lurching fearfully, he proceeded with caution. "Skywalker was somehow able to locate the Wookiee and free her, along with every other prisoner. There were heavy losses. Punishments for such a dismal failure are being meted out even as we speak." He rushed on, "I plan to have him arrested in the morning—"

"Do nothing."

"What? But, I can't do nothing—"

"You can and you will." Sidious' demand came out as a proclamation. Lyonides felt that quiver in his knees again. This time there was no denying the wave of malice that washed over Lyonides, raising every fine hair on his body. Sidious wasn't finished. "I've already told you that I have everything in place. The plan is in motion and proceeding exactly as I've foreseen. This little set-back of yours requires no alteration to those plans. In fact, it helps me a great deal. I wanted Skywalker distracted and provoked and you've accomplished that. Consider it a job well done and control your offended pride."

It took a great deal of effort for Lyonides to make any reply. Pride battled with caution, and won. Simmering, he snarled, "You give me no choice but to comply, Lord Sidious. I should warn you that I didn't bargain for any of this."

"You arrested the Wookiee. That was not in the plan. If losing her has cost you then you must look to yourself for the blame." The icy chill in that reply had Lyonides' head bowing against his will. It was as if a heavy hand had grasped his head, forcing the mark of respect, and obedience. Wounded pride quailed as dread skittered down his spine. All of a sudden, he could no longer ignore the bodies still shackled to the walls. From underneath his lashes, his eyes flickered from one to another; gleaming bone, flaps of grey skin, dark pools underneath. The sightless eyes seemed to stab into his own. His gorge rose to choke him.

Oh Gods! What had he done? It wasn't supposed to be like this—it hadn't been this way when his father had made a deal. It had been so simple, deniable, and most importantly, out of sight.

After a few silent beats, Sidious appeared to take pity on him. The pressure lifted. "Do not concern yourself with a few petty humiliations, Premier. Skywalker and all whom he cares for will suffer more than you can possibly imagine before I am finished—that I can promise you."

Lyonides believed the Sith lord, and actually pitied Skywalker and Amidala. "And the rest of your promises?"

"Will be delivered in full." Sidious flicked one, long skeletal finger in dismissal. "You may leave now. I will contact you when I need you again. Go about your business and leave Skywalker to me."

To Lyonides' left, a holoprojector hummed into life, startling him with the sudden glow as a figure appeared. As he hurried out of the chamber and into the tunnels, he couldn't help but think that he'd been given a temporary reprieve—perhaps from death.

ooo

"I should have followed my first impulse and left you to die on Mustafar, my very treacherous apprentice."

The darkness of the chamber was nothing to the dark malevolence of that voice. Hatred boiled in Darth Sidious, Dark Lord of the Sith, as he circled the frozen, life-sized holorecording of a man. Crystal clear and in full colour, the figure had his head and shoulders thrown back, caught in the act of taking in a deep lungful of air after battle. Sodden, dark blonde hair was plastered to the man's head and neck. The bright blue eyes were closed.

"But that wasn't my first mistake. No, my first mistake was not foreseeing how weak you really were inside." Under the cowl, Sidious glared balefully at the youthful face. "Killing me and yourself just to save your whelp of a son—how pathetically mundane. I expected more from you, Lord Vader. You disappoint me." Turning his back on the image, Sidious paced away, nodding slowly to himself. "I see now that you didn't deserve to be a Sith. I offered you true power and you let loss limit your reach for it. I should have realised then—I was warned, but I didn't take heed—another mistake. No matter, there will be no more."

The finality in that last statement was chillingly absolute. The rasp of his voice woke the pitiful creature chained in the very blackest corner of the dank, secret chamber. Sidious 

ignored the visceral tug he felt as a choked whimper broke free, teasing him. It was a matter of pride, and control, that he refused to allow his train of thought to be disrupted by a purely physical need. "There will be revenge, but there will also be gain. Luke Skywalker and his sister are out of my reach—for now—but there are other ways. There are always other ways of achieving an objective. One simply has to improvise."

Opportunity, flexibility and improvisation were essential elements to any strategy. Pride had nothing to do with it, Sidious knew he was a strategist unequalled throughout the galaxy.

For example, the mutations his body had undergone after death were just another change to become adjusted to, planned for, and used. Sidious raised his hands, allowing the robe sleeves to fall back. With the exception of the holorecording, there was no other lightsource. He didn't need any. Gone were the withered, gnarled hands of a decaying old man. What had taken their place might look more like long, brittle claws, but they were incredibly strong.

Strength was another important element.

Sidious clenched his fists, digging the talons into his own blackened flesh, relishing the stinging pain, and the near future. "Soon, my connection with the dark side of the Force will be strong enough to cast off restraint. Soon, I will no longer need to expend so much energy simply to remain in this 'second' world. After that, everyone—including Vader—no Skywalker—will be nothing more than fodder to my cause."

Then, like a few of his more revered Sith predecessors, Sidious would gain enough strength from the reign of terror he intended to invoke to return to the living world—as a mere shade, true, but, he had a contingency plan for that, just as he had done for everything else.

Fear was the key. Fear was right here.

Sidious finally allowed himself to give his full attention to his 'guest'. He approached slowly, savouring the stench of futile terror. The dark energies in the room seethed with it, every bit as ravenous as he. At first, this new hunger in him had elicited a faint disgust, but survival made any necessity palatable—even, dare he say it—enjoyable. Reaching out, he stroked one cheek, scraping by the eye he hadn't yet plucked out. She gave him so much gratification, as well as nourishment: puffs of horror; strangled wails of agony; icy sweat that tingled saltily on the tongue; desperate, uncontrollable urination.

ooo

Padmé made her way back to the bar after having made use of the hot sonic shower in Lorne's apartment. The exotic strangeness of the club's owner was even more evident in his personal quarters. The green humanoid was definitely not afraid to clash colours and styles. Effervescent gaudiness ran through the apartment every bit as much as in the Pylean's wardrobe. Situated on the same floor, the two areas were separated by a short hallway and a door at either end. It was out of hours and the club was closed. Punchy with exhaustion, and an odd shift inside herself that she couldn't identify, she almost barrelled into Anakin, who was waiting for her.

His hands reached out to steady her. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

The blue of his eyes trapped her. "You didn't." His smile said different. She felt her lips curve in a rueful, return smile. "Okay, maybe you did." Her heart gave a flutter when his 

gaze dropped briefly to her lips. Gods!. Oddly breathless, she asked, "Where is everyone?"

Dropping his hands, he jerked his head to indicate deeper into the club. "Sitting down. Lorne has Ceetee on waiter training. I advise you to smell your drink before risking a sip."

"That sounds like good advice. I'll be sure to take it." Still jittery, she could only pray that it didn't come out sounding overly chirpy. Walking next to him, she felt superheated and ridiculously sensitised.

Get a grip. Think about something else!

In defence, she concentrated on their surroundings rather than Anakin. With the lights on full, the club looked surprisingly clean and spacious now that it was empty. Tiny cleaning droids were still zooming around, brushing and polishing. Sal Trent, Anakin's pilot friend, was sitting with Lorne and Freyrr in a large booth. As Anakin had warned, Ceetee was zipping along happily with a tray clutched in one of his utility arms.

Lorne, ever present drink to hand, jiggled the cup at her. "Hey, sweetcheeks. What do you say to a night-cap to round off the highjinks portion of the evening?"

"It's only a few hours until morning," Padmé pointed out, lightly, taking the last space beside Freyrr.

"Which means it's neither too early in the morning, nor too late at night to drink. Perfect timing."

Anakin pulled up a stool, but didn't sit. "You can't argue with logic like that," he joked. "Do you want a sweet caf?"

It was bizarre, yet relaxing to find herself in a second-rate bar drinking with mostly strangers in the middle of the night, especially after a night spent breaking the law. It was also a welcome distraction. She found herself grinning. "Yes, please. Although, considering I'm exhausted and yet still wound up, I don't know if a stimulant is such a wonderful idea."

"I'll make it a milky one."

Anakin shared a brief glance with Sal before going over to the dispenser behind the bar. Obviously getting the message, Sal straightened up to tell her, "Talking about needing sleep, Anakin is gonna bunk in with me tonight so that you and Freyrr here can share his room."

"Sorry, kiddo," interjected Lorne, grimacing apologetically. "I don't have a spare room or I'd give it to you in a heartbeat. I've got some spare pallets with mattresses and sheets, though, so whoever doesn't get the bed can get comfortable."

Considering she'd been thinking longingly of finding any flat spot to curl up on and sleep, it was a tempting offer, except, "I can't take your be—room," she told Anakin as he placed a fragrant cup of caf in front of her. A flush worked its way up her neck at her near slip of the tongue.

He settled his tall, lean form on the stool and folded his arms on the table top. "We've already agreed that you can't go back to your place, and I want you to get a good sleep. You've had a rough night."

"We all have," she reminded him. Still, it seemed churlish to continue to argue. "Alright. Thank you." She took a deep breath. "Saying that, I don't share your confidence that Lyonides won't send a detachment out to arrest us. He has to know who's responsible by now."

"I was the only one positively identified and the security cams and arrest records were either destroyed or wiped clean by Ceetee, so there is no other evidence." Anakin countered, patiently. "You could say one of the benefits of my new celebrity status is that he can't arrest me without good cause—and, considering the break-out happened from a detention centre that he can't admit exists, he can hardly use that as the reason."

Sal nodded, perfectly unconcerned. "Besides, I think we can guarantee that our boy here wouldn't go quietly. Lyonides will know that and won't risk a confrontation in the Outer Rim. There'd be a riot if he was dumb enough to try it." Tipping back his head, Sal finished his drink, grimacing as the bite of the alcohol hit the back of his throat. "The Premier isn't exactly popular out here, and folks have got kinda partial to having someone who can kick Narzgh butt living close by."

"So have I," quipped Lorne. "Not that I'm riot material—I'm more of your pacifist, dimension-hoppin' demon, if you know what I mean. I'd cheer and make snazzy banners, though. Maybe sing a rousing rendition of Jailhouse Rock."

Eager to please, Ceetee deposited a fresh cup—green smoke curling ominously—next to Sal's elbow. Picking it up, he swigged and rolled his eyes. "Don't start with that dimension-hopping crap again." The cough hit him mid-sentence. The rest came out as a wheeze. "I've seen and heard lots of crazy things, but I've never heard of anyone crossing dimensions—"

Unfazed, Lorne slapped him on the back to help him clear his airway. "Sweetie, I could curl even your 'doo with the stuff that you've never heard before. Did I ever tell you the one about the Lubber demons and the physicist…?"

Obviously amused, Freyrr gave a roar of interest, egging the Pylean on.

Recovered, Sal waved the assistance away and was less gracious. "Yeah, yeah. So you keeping saying, and, no, I don't think I wanna know…"

"Don't worry about Lyonides. You'll be safe here," Anakin told Padmé, grabbing her attention while the others were busy. "I'm only on the floor below you and if someone tries to get to you, I'll know before they're even close. Trust me."

He said it as if he was making a solemn vow. Padmé had to swallow a sudden lump. Telling herself that it was dangerous and stupid to come to depend on him didn't make it any less tempting. She was too drained to fight him, or herself, any more tonight. "I wouldn't have had a chance of finding and freeing Freyrr if it wasn't for you. I'm grateful and I do trust you." She was jittery with nerves all over again, and it had nothing to do with Lyonides. She smiled, trying to dispel the sudden intensity. "Don't mind me—I worry because that's my job."

ooo

Anakin waited until Padmé and Freyrr were settled and then set off. Both the Wookiee and Sal knew where he was going and why. They also understood not to tell Padmé. He told himself it wasn't lying or being underhand, he just didn't want her worrying needlessly. He wasn't planning to be gone long. After the events of the last day, Anakin had decided that it was time he returned the favour and engineered a meeting with 

Petris Lyonides. Certain realities, he realised, needed to be spelled out, as well as consequences. It might be the middle of the night, but he'd never been one to put off what needed doing until it was convenient.

During curfew, the Core was locked down by massive, blast-proof gates barring every entryway from the Outer Rim. Getting over them was relatively easy, and so was avoiding the enforcement patrols. To make the journey quicker, he hitched a ride atop an unsuspecting security shuttle, which took him to within a kilometre of the palace. Slipping out of the heavily staffed hanger bay was more about timing than skill. Outside, he blended into the darkness of the cityscape with his equally dark clothing. The journey was finished on foot via the 'glides. All around him, the inhabitants of the Core slept on.

Dulled by hours of monotony, the guards at the numerous security checkpoints he passed only needed a mind-nudge to allow him to pass unchallenged.

Ahead, bathed in the glow of artificial lighting, Roth's palace looked serene and inviting. There was nothing here of imposing ziggurats or pyramids. The original builders, Anakin mused, hadn't been trying to intimidate the citizens of the city, or make grand statements. It didn't suit Lyonides. Running lightly through the ornamental gardens and then up the stone steps, he entered the grand corridor that ran almost the entire length of the palace. Libraries, robing rooms, private offices, lobbies and a myriad of unidentified chambers led off the main corridor. All were shrouded in darkness.

Security seemed extremely lax indeed. Anakin sincerely hoped such an appearance was deceptive. He didn't try to hide his presence and let a mixture of whim and instinct guide his steps. Taking the stairs of a sweeping staircase two at a time, he began to climb to the first floor. He'd gone no more than half a dozen steps when he finally felt the intricate tracery of energy that was the Force jangle a warning. He sensed the presence of other beings. From the tense, expectant silence, and the way the life signatures were spread out, he guessed it was an ambush. Obviously, they were lying in wait on the landing to catch the 'intruder'. Anakin smiled grimly to himself. Keeping his lightsaber attached to the belt, hidden under his cloak, he decided to let them spring their 'trap'. The moment he reached the very top step, a light was shone in his eyes. A harsh voice ordered him to halt.

He halted.

"Put your hands up and keep them where we can see them," the voice commanded. "No sudden moves."

The light continued to shine fully in his face, blinding him. "Easy," Anakin admonished, lightly. He dutifully raised his hands. "I'm no threat to you."

He estimated a ten-strong squad. Rough, gloved hands patted him down. Rather than risk losing his lightsaber, Anakin was a bit too forceful with this latest mind-push. "I'm unarmed."

The guard searching him stumbled dizzily. He had to shake his head to clear it before he could report as Anakin had influenced him, confirming, "He's unarmed, Commander."

The light dipped, but didn't drop fully. "Unarmed or not, you shouldn't be here. You're under arrest for trespassing." The voice remained grim and unimpressed. "That's just for starters. I don't care who you are. Nobody gets to just waltz into the palace in the middle of the night."

Anakin concentrated fully on the vague shape of commander. He didn't bother trying to apply any mind tricks—something told him they wouldn't work with this one. Instead, he chose to use words to plant a suggestion. "I'm here to see the Premier. I advise that you contact him before you take this … misunderstanding further than he'd like, Commander."

The man shifted, obviously put out at having suggestions thrown at him by a prisoner. "It's three am, and the Premier retired hours ago. That doesn't suggest to me that he's expecting visitors."

"Unexpected doesn't always mean unwelcome," retorted Anakin, calmly. His hands were folded in front of him, presenting a demeanour of non-threatening patience. Obi-Wan had been an expert at such tricks, he recalled with an affection that strangely jolted. He could almost feel his old Jedi mentor standing next to him, facing the same obstacle and dangers.

Focus. Don't get distracted.

There was a hurried, whispered conference involving three of the guards. More flashlights joined the first, pointed at the ground to provide everyone with enough illumination to see. Anakin kept his gaze on the commander. At least he could see him properly now. Square-jawed and obstinate looking with a thick mane of salt and pepper hair, the man was mature enough to be confident in his role. The question was whether the man was assured enough to risk his position by a false move, either way.

A decision was reached. "Alright, Skywalker, I'm going to contact the Premier's apartment. You'd better hope that he's ecstatic to be woken up to chat with you."

ooo

The cloud cover had broken enough for a stray moonbeam to thread through the wooden shutters. Silvery white, the beam of light caught slim fingers running lightly over a pillow. Those same fingers dipped off the soft edge, splaying wide over the under-sheet as if soaking up something precious. The bedding was clean. Raised in a temple from a child, Anakin was meticulous. Still, she'd been intimate with him enough to recognise the subtle scents impregnated into the cotton fibres.

Anakin. This was his bed. He slept here. During their marriage, he'd always come to her bed. Stupidly, she felt as if she'd missed something important.

Those scents were her undoing. She was wreathed in him, surrounded.

Tears trembled unnoticed at the edges of her lashes. Yet, she wasn't unhappy, just weak. The coverings were tangled around her legs and body. She didn't attempt to untangle them. If she tried really, really hard, Padmé could imagine that he was here with her, that his legs were tucked between hers, nestling her into the strong, heated curve of his body, his arms around her, his breath caressing her neck. If that were the case, all she had to do was tilt and turn her head to receive his kiss.

She could almost hear the deep rumble of his voice, passion-roughened to new depths, teasing her, Kiss me.

Heavy, liquid heat pooled in her belly. A tear slipped free. More than once during the night the urge to kiss him had swept in out of nowhere. It was those damned heroics of his slipping under her defences, just as they had all those years ago. Watching him fight—defying death right in front of her eyes—had finally ripped her blinders away. A sigh gusted out of her lips, wavering on the air. She was tired of denying it anymore. What was the use? It wasn't doing her any good. Despite everything, her need for him was growing. She was falling in love again. Anakin was pushing aside every barrier to her heart with an ease that scared her, freeing the well of love she'd already been carrying for him—and always would.

The terrible things he'd done when he'd turned to the dark side no longer helped her hold him at bay. She could see how desperately he wanted to atone and it made her heart ache.

The last day and night had proved that she couldn't separate the two halves of his life, deluding herself that she only loved one and despised the other. Padmé didn't pretend to understand how Anakin could be both, or how he could have done the things he had, but she loved him regardless.

That was her weakness.

Another tear slipped free, splashing onto her cheek. Pain bloomed, riding on the back of resentment and quenched the heat. Except nothing else had changed.

The second world was a dangerous place. If she let herself follow her heart, could she guarantee that history wouldn't repeat itself on this too? Anakin's weakness was the fear of loss. The horror that was Vader had been born out of that fear. She remembered the nightmares, rash paranoia, and black obsession all too well. The memories roughened her skin with goose-bumps. What if he had another nightmare about her? What if she were under threat, as she was now? If she were to die now, she would go to the first world, this time to stay, separating them again. If she told him she loved him, they'd become lovers. What would Anakin then do if he was faced with her losing her a second time?

Last time, millions had paid for her mistake in tempting him to defy the Jedi Code. Did she even have the right to risk it again?

Chest aching, Padmé already knew the answer. No. But, still, a part of her was teetering on the brink of not caring about right and wrong. If he pushed it, she might crumble.

TBC